OU Sooners: Spencer Rattler's growth and the 21 things to look forward to in 2021
NORMAN — There’s plenty to look forward to in 2021 at OU, not only in football but in all sports. From the Sooners’ quarterback play to the historic return of Nebraska to a dynamic pitching and hitting duo on the softball field to Bedlam hoops, here are 21 things to look forward to in 2021 when it comes to OU:
1. Spencer Rattler’s growth
Rattler was excellent in his first season as a starter, but figures to take a big step forward as a redshirt sophomore. Rattler’s decision-making and vision improved throughout this season and he figures to continue to progress, both mentally and physically. Rattler’s ability to make plays outside the pocket — mainly throwing on the run — gave a tantalizing taste of what his ceiling could be.
2. Caleb Williams’ debut
While Rattler will still be the starter, barring an injury or other unforeseen circumstance, Williams, the latest five-star quarterback who signed with the Sooners, figures to see at least some action. Williams has a cannon for an arm, and much like what Rattler showed in limited action in 2019, Williams could give a peak into the future of the position in otherwise forgettable late-game situations in 2021.
3. Welcome back, Huskers
Fifty years after No. 1 Nebraska beat No. 2 OU in the “Game of the Century,” the Huskers return to the Sooners’ schedule. It’s been 10 years since Nebraska and OU squared off and they haven’t met in Norman since 2008, but the restoration — for a two-year stint — of one of college football’s greatest rivalries will be one of the highlights of the 2021 season, even if Nebraska hasn’t had a winning season since 2016.
4. Deep WR corps
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Though the Sooners didn’t have a clear No. 1 receiver this year, there were plenty of positive signs for the future, especially in Marvin Mims’ and Theo Wease’s performances. With Jadon Haselwood back to full strength and Trejan Bridges back in the fold, Austin Stogner’s emergence as a big-time threat, plus the additions of Mario Williams, Jalil Farooq, Billy Bowman and Cody Jackson in the 2021 class, next year’s receiving group could be the deepest the Sooners have had.
5. Grinch, Year 3
Alex Grinch’s defense took a big step forward in 2020, especially in pressuring quarterbacks and creating turnovers. As Grinch’s defense becomes more loaded with recruits he brought in, the Sooners figure to keep evolving closer to Grinch’s ‘Speed D’ vision.
6. In the trenches
The Sooners could be loaded on the defensive line, especially if defensive end Ronnie Perkins returns. Perkins looked like the best defender in the Big 12 after he came back from suspension but he still has plenty of upside, as does Perrion Winfrey in the middle. Isaiah Thomas and Nik Bonitto will be back, as will some young players who had limited chances this season — Marcus Stripling and Kori Roberson among them. Then there’s the return of Jalen Redmond, who opted out in 2020. Redmond was versatility, much like Thomas, to play both inside and outside and if he’s healthy, can be nearly as disruptive as Perkins based on what he showed in 2019.
7. A full Cotton Bowl
This year’s Red River Showdown was odd and awkward — no bustling crowd at the state fair, no masses of fans greeting the busses as they rolled in, no packed Cotton Bowl shaking with anticipation at every play. Here’s hoping that progress over the next nine months allows the crowds to return all around, but especially in early October in Dallas.
8. Back to the Big Easy
OU doesn’t often travel to play non-Power 5 opponents but the Sooners start the season at Tulane in 2021. With Louisiana being fertile recruiting ground, the game makes sense. OU has won eight consecutive true road games in non-conference play — though the 2016 loss against Houston at NRG Stadium in that city was technically considered a neutral-site game. Tulane doesn’t figure to be the team to hand the Sooners their first non-conference road loss since Miami in 2009, but Yulman Stadium figures to be a good backdrop for the 2021 opener.
9. Harrington’s return
The Sooners could’ve used a defensive back like Justin Harrington early in the season, but the juco product missed 2020 after reportedly suffering a torn ACL before the season. The 6-foot-3 versatile defender would give the secondary more size and help with what Grinch would like to see there.
10. The chase for six
OU might’ve won its sixth consecutive Big 12 title in 2020, but Caleb Kelly has only been a part of five of those teams. The linebacker, out this season after tearing his ACL for the second consecutive year, announced he would return in 2021 to pursue what would be an unprecedented sixth conference title by a player. Kelly was expected to return to the starting lineup in 2020 had he stayed healthy.
11. Bedenbaugh rebuild
With center Creed Humphrey and tackles Adrian Ealy and Erik Swenson all potentially gone from next year’s roster, the Sooners’ offensive line could look much different. Anton Harrison and Chris Murray both saw significant playing time in the Big 12 Championship Game and could move into the starting lineup next year. Replacing Humphrey, if he leaves for the draft, could be the trickiest proposition, though Andrew Raym drew rave reviews in preseason camp and could slide into that role as a redshirt freshman.
12. Filling Beamer’s role
With several positionally flexible coaches on his staff, Lincoln Riley has some options as he searches for a replacement for H-backs/tight ends coach Shane Beamer in the coming weeks. While it remains to be seen if Riley’s hire of Demarco Murray last offseason will be a home run, Riley’s track record of beginning aboard assistants is hard to argue with, especially with the success outside linebackers/defensive ends coach Jamar Cain has had this season. Recruiting figures to be at the top of mind when Riley makes the hire.
13. Baker Mayfield, the statue
One of the highlights of the 2020 spring game was to be the dedication of Baker Mayfield’s Heisman Park statue. But when the game was called off, that plan was delayed and an empty slab remains at the site where Mayfield’s statue will sit. The statue is likely to be unveiled as part of the 2021 spring game ceremonies.
14. The next Isaiah Thomas
While the returning stars and hyped recruits always get the majority of the attention, nearly every year a player — or two or more — who hasn’t done much to that point in his career blossoms. There were several of those in 2020, but the most dramatic was Isaiah Thomas. Who will be the player that emerges seemingly out of nowhere for OU in 2021?
15. Next-level success
Three OU quarterbacks were starters in the NFL in 2020, with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray showing significant progress and Jalen Hurts breaking in as a starter late in his rookie season. All could take another step forward next year, continuing to serve as a beacon to recruits wanting to develop into NFL quarterbacks.
16. Welcome back, Ana
While the OU women’s basketball program has struggled during her time in Norman, Choctaw product Ana Llanusa has been a bright spot when she’s been healthy. Llanusa is missing the 2020-21 season after undergoing surgery but if rehab goes well, she should be ready in time for next season, which would be a big lift for coach Sherri Coale’s program.
17. Cade vs. Brady
While most of these are well down the road, the first of two men’s basketball Bedlam matchups will be played Jan. 16, with the second Feb. 27 in Norman. OU vs. OSU is always exciting but with the Sooners having one of the best veterans in the conference in Brady Manek and the Cowboys featuring one of the top freshmen anywhere in Cade Cunningham, this year’s games could be particularly fascinating.
18. Young and local
OU’s baseball team looked like a contender for Omaha when last season was cut short. Coach Skip Johnson’s club lost plenty of pitching in the abbreviated draft, in Cade Cavalli, Levi Prater and Dane Acker. The Sooners’ incoming class, though, has plenty of talent, headlined by Westmoore’s Jace Bohrofen and Norman’s Cade Horton.
19. The return of G
Giselle Juarez was excellent in her first season at OU in 2019 after transferring from Arizona State, going 28-4 with a 1.39 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings. But Juarez was limited to just 6 2/3 innings due to arm injury. Juarez had surgery for a torn biceps in March and is a big piece of the Sooners’ plan to return to the Women’s College World Series.
20. Alo, Goodbye
It won’t only be the Sooners’ arms that are potent for coach Patty Gasso’s squad. Outfielder Jocelyn Alo was hitting .427 with eight home runs when the season ended abruptly last spring. The senior from Hawaii has 54 career home runs, fourth on the Sooners’ career list. Alo could move well up on that list, potentially passing Shelby Pendley, who had 65 career home runs, for second behind Lauren Chamberlain’s program record 95.
21. Life after Maggie
The Sooners’ women’s gymnastics team is loaded once again, but for the first time since 2016, Maggie Nichols won’t be competing. Instead, one of the most decorated gymnasts in NCAA history will be on the coaching staff as a volunteer assistant while Anastasia Webb, Allie Stern and Ragan Smith return as the core of the OU lineup that enters the season ranked No. 2.